Video still of the hooked cowshark

Man and cowshark

Sevengill cowsharks are not found in too many places worldwide. Well, certainly not in 12 metres of water less than 100 metres from the shoreline. The dive site known as Shark Alley, located in front of Pyramid Rock, close to Miller’s Point on the Cape Peninsula is home to many broadnosed sevengill cowsharks.

There are a few ways to dive this site, the easiest and most costly being from a boat. Fortunately it is also possible to do this dive as a shore entry and this is where it can be tricky. There are a few places you can enter the water, but most involve clambering over a few rocks and a steep grassy bank that must first be negotiated. Once in the water a short surface swim to clear the kelp and you are set to go.

Once you have descended into around 8 – 10 metres of water it is barely minutes before you see the first sharks. They are graceful and slow swimmers (when they are relaxed) and will swim slowly amongst the divers, sometimes passing by so close that your camera won’t focus. They seem to enjoy poor visibility more than we do and come a lot closer when the water is murky.

We did a dive at Shark Alley last weekend. The visibility wasn’t great, but we saw lots of sharks and I got some decent video footage. What struck us was how few of these sharks are in peak, glossy physical condition.

These sharks do often display bite marks sustained during mating or routine fighting and feeding activities. We spotted this shark last year on an eventful dive at Shark Alley (also in pretty poor visibility). The top of its caudal (tail) fin has been bitten or cut off. It’s usually long and sweeping. You can see the same shark briefly in the video above, so it’s clearly not too much of an impediment to hunting and general survival because it has survived for at least five months like that. We’re not sure how it lost part of its tail – it could well have been during an interaction with another shark.

Cowshark with missing caudal fin
Cowshark with missing caudal fin

On our last dive there this past weekend, however, we saw two definite signs of man’s harm to these creatures.

Video still of the hooked cowshark
Video still of the hooked cowshark

One shark has been hooked by a huge stainless steel hook like the ones used to catch snoek. This shark lives with the hook in its mouth. Last year I saw this shark and there was a length of line attached to the hook. This line is now much shorter but has become encrusted and now is a huge drag on the swimming ability of the shark and will limit the swimming speed by pulling on its mouth and will also reduce the ability to hunt.

We see hooks in these sharks’ mouths fairly often. Because they’re stainless steel, they won’t rust through and drop off – unless someone removes the hook (unlikely), the shark has it for life.

Sevengill cowsharks are caught and their livers are sold to white shark cage diving operators to use as chum, which attracts the white sharks to the boats. Sevengill cowsharks (unlike great whites) are not protected which makes this practice – while completely deplorable – totally legal (for now). Here’s an article from Independent Online about the issue.

Propeller wounds (video still)
Propeller wounds (video still)

The second injured shark seems to have been hit by a boat propeller. There is a huge wound on the right flank but the curved cuts on the left flank look like they were made by a prop. The shark swam by slowly and then bumped into some kelp, clearly struggling with the pain which must be affecting the its ability to swim and feed. These photos show the injuries but the video above shows just how sluggish the shark has become.

Deep gouge on the shark with the propellor wound (video still)
Deep gouge on the shark with the propellor wound (video still)

When I compare the damaged condition of these beautiful creatures to the condition of the flawless batfish living in captivity in the aquarium in Durban, or to the fat, sleek ragged tooth sharks in the Two Oceans Aquarium, for example, I see how hard it must be to be a shark (or any creature) in the wild. Not only because of the harsh realities of the natural world, but also because of the harsh realities of man’s impact on that world.

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Tony

Scuba diver, teacher, gadget man, racing driver, boat skipper, photographer, and collector of stray animals

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